Francisco Flett is hungry.
The 19 year old is out with some friends who stop at Walia's convenience store, gas bar and car wash on Isabel Street near the south end of the Slaw Rebchuk Bridge. The Chester Fried Chicken outlet sells his favourite — deep-fried egg rolls.
"I come here all the time," he says, ordering two egg rolls with plum sauce on the side from Tewodros Tadesse, who smiles at Flett and greets him as "boss."
"He's a funny guy," says Flett.
Minutes later, a tall, lean middle-aged man with a pack on his back wearing a ball cap stops at the store's ATM to get some cash and order "the usual" — two chicken legs.
"It's too hot to sleep," he says, preferring not to give his name.
"He's our best customer," Tadesse says, flashing him a huge smile.
The clerk from Ethiopia, who didn't speak a word of English when he arrived in Canada in 2015, greets every bleary-eyed early morning customer with a cheery "hello" and a big grin, calling the regulars "boss" or "big guy."
"If you're kind to them, they're kind to you." –Tewodros Tadesse
Despite the friendly, welcoming atmosphere, there are signs warning customers they're not allowed to enter the store wearing a mask or a hoodie or carrying a large bag. There's a monitor behind the counter showing video from a half-dozen surveillance cameras; the robbery rate in this neighbourhood is 20 times the national rate, Statistics Canada reported in 2013.
Staff occasionally deal with someone who is intoxicated, Tadesse says, but the vast majority of people, whether travelling by foot or by car, shop at the store at all hours for pop, chips, toilet paper or $13.20 packs of cigarettes without incident.
"People aren't scared," says Tadesse, who works the overnight shift and lives near the store with his wife. She works there during the day, and the couple know their neighbourhood and its customers.
"They're nice," Tadesse says, as he wipes down the drink machines.
He is working the shift with John, who is manning the deep fryer after sweeping the parking lot and checking on the car wash and its steady stream of taxicabs.
The 21 year old, also from Ethiopia, couldn't speak any English when he arrived in Canada in 2014. He got his Grade 12 but says the store has been a great classroom for learning the language.
"I like to communicate with people," says John, who doesn't want his last name published. He's taken to the business and plans to open his own store by the time he is 26.
"It's pretty fun, to me," he says after handing the washroom key to a young woman who isn't buying anything. "If you're kind to them, they're kind to you."
— Carol Sanders
Photography by Andrew Ryan